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BOOKS & AUTHORS : Hine Looks at Blindness, Recovery in ‘Second Sight’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During his 36 years as a professor at UC Riverside, Robert V. Hine wrote 12 books on Western American history. One of them, “California’s Utopian Colonies,” is still in print after four decades.

But at 72 and living in a retirement community near UC Irvine the past three years, Hine is enjoying the kind of sales and attention he never dreamed likely for a book he originally intended solely as a “memento” for family and friends.

In “Second Sight” (University of California Press; $20), Hine chronicles his 20 years of failing eyesight, his 15 years of total blindness and the near-miraculous restoration of his sight in one eye after a dangerous operation in 1986.

Hine’s story of his journey into and out of darkness is, as the soft-spoken professor emeritus modestly puts it, generating a “surprising reaction.”

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His publisher ordered a second printing even before the book was published in August; it has been selected by the Book of the Month Club, and it is generating glowing reviews--from Library Journal to the New York Times Book Review--as a moving and sensitive story that provides rare insight into blindness.

But the most unexpected turn of events came last Friday when a crew from the “Today” show came calling, spending the entire day filming Hine and his wife of 44 years, Shirley, for an upcoming segment.

“It’s pretty late to be writing something that somebody wants to read, isn’t it?” Hine said with a chuckle. “I’ve written a lot of books, but nobody’s been interested in reading them like this one.”

Hine, whose book is excerpted in the current Chronicle of Higher Education and will be featured in California History magazine, said he has been trying to figure out exactly why “Second Sight” has aroused so much interest.

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“I guess it’s just because we’re all fearful of losing our sight, and there are a lot of people out there who have vision problems,” he said. “I suppose the book just says to them, ‘Don’t be too upset; it’s possible to exist with blindness as well as with sight, and the possibilities of adjusting are enormous.’ ”

On the other hand, he said, “there’s no denial that sight is magnificent, and I was one of those rare, lucky people who had it given back to me.”

Hine began keeping a journal shortly after his eye operation, the trauma of seeing again after 15 years of blindness seeming, as he writes, “instructive enough to begin a detailed journal of my reactions, first in Braille, and then, as the pages became clearer and clearer, by hand.”

“This was to be a little small-press book--that was my vision of it--but I got intrigued with other peoples’ experience with blindness and restoration of sight,” Hine said. “I figured my experience wouldn’t mean much unless it were put in the context of other similar experiences, so I began reading about the lives of people like James Thurber; and Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine poet; Eleanor Clark, the novelist; (Buchenwald prisoner) Jacques Lusseyran” and others, which he incorporates into his narrative.

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But it’s Hine’s story, simply yet eloquently told, that forms the heart of “Second Sight.”

The book opens with Hine, at age 20, being told by a doctor that he eventually will go blind. He had spent his 17th year in bed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which brought on an inflammatory eye condition called uveitis.

Hine, however, paid no attention to the doctor’s verdict. There were no violins sounding in his ear, he writes, “no tearful tirade against fate. . . . Twenty-year-olds do not rail and shake their fists at fortune. Statistics do not include them.”

Returning to college, finishing graduate school and beginning his teaching career, Hine said, he “continued to function rather well, without people being aware of my eye problems.”

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Gradually though, in his 40s, his sight began to deteriorate: cataracts in both eyes rapidly growing, as he writes, “like hotbeds of spurge on a humid summer day.”

He was already using magnifiers to read and writing his lecture notes in inch-high letters, and by 1970 he was totally blind to the extent that he could only vaguely sense light.

That’s when, as he writes, he finally began brandishing “a white cane to announce my surrender.”

“I was pretty good in Braille by then, but I got a lot better,” Hine said. “And there was no reason in our minds to think anything would change. My wife and I were prepared for my being blind the rest of my life. There was no real hope that anything would be any different.”

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Hine, however, made the best of it.

During this period of total blindness he wrote three history books--the most acclaimed being “Community on the American Frontier.” He wrote his books with the aid of “readers”: university students who would read reference works to him as he typed the information on a Braille writer.

Unhappy with no longer being able to read book passages and quotes from historical figures to spice up his lectures, Hine also began tape recording quotes beforehand. He later added slides and ultimately background music to his lecture presentations.

Although Hine’s uveitis condition had made cataract surgery too dangerous, he had no choice in 1986 when he was faced with the onset of secondary glaucoma. Going into the dangerous operation, he had no idea of the outcome.

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“The doctor said it was conceivable there could be some sight restored,” he said. “She was talking about greater perception of light. We didn’t know it was going to be anything like this.”

For Hine, his post-op world was indeed a miracle to behold.

Merely opening the kitchen cupboards the day following the removal of his bandages, he wrote in his journal, was like opening “jewel cases. The milk of magnesia bottle was so blue. The Pero (coffee substitute) carton from which for years I dipped so many spoonfuls and assumed to be beige was orange and saffron. . . . The stove and countertops were, surprisingly, green. I never imagined them that color.”

With childlike wonder, he explored the house he had lived in for eight years but had never seen: “The transparent ruby redness of my toothbrush hit me since I had thought it white. My shirts, especially a plaid one, were wonderful, as was the jagged whiteness of a Kleenex coming up toward my face.”

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But more than the visual excitement of seeing milk or wine poured into a glass, the jet of water from the kitchen faucet and “the glow of the whole house in the morning with the back patio so green and secluded,” was seeing the faces of the people he loved.

He describes seeing his wife Shirley again, her once blond hair having turned silver. And later, facing his own aging countenance, he writes: “I knew the hair on my head had receded, but my forehead looks terribly extended. In the merciless cross light of the bathroom mirror, I see a mass of wrinkles with the slightest facial movement.”

Hine also had missed being able to pick up a book and read.

“For somebody like me anyway, it was a great loss,” he said. “A book is . . . such a joy from so many visual standpoints. Books are wonderful things, and bookstores and libraries and all those things have to be used in a very different way by the blind. I found that difficult.”

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But, he stresses, he was “a very lucky person.”

“I keep wanting to repeat that,” he said. “There are so many blind people who are less fortunate than I was. I was able to keep my job; I was able to lecture: I used Braille notes. I even concealed them in my pockets so students thought I knew more than I did. I know I was a very lucky person.”

He knew that, he said, even before his eye operation “and when I got my sight back I was the luckiest of the lucky.”


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